When I started volunteering at the English Second Language (ESL) class, I didn’t know what to expect: I didn’t know the teacher or any of the students. I didn’t know how the class worked, and I certainly don’t know the language of an English teacher. On the first day, seeing the international group gathered in one place for the same goal made me smile … after all, the majority of the world is good … but the uncertainty remained – including how the students would react to me.
Like any first impression, I formed mine by watching and listening to the students. The fact that their personalities occupied a wide spectrum shouldn’t surprise anyone. I don’t recall Lisa, (a young au pair from France) attending on my first day, but I recall that my initial impressions of her included impersonal, quiet, cold, guarded, and a touch of arrogance.
I knew better than trying to crack her personal barrier, so I did what I do with every student – focus on the task at hand while being personable, respectful, and welcoming. We conversed several times because I had worked with the young lady she sits beside – another French au pair. Watching Lisa have a good time at the Christmas white-elephant gift party provided a glimpse into her warmer side. Eventually we worked together, and all went well.
The teacher promotes publishing opportunities for the students – and some participate. This particular volunteer day happened to be the submission deadline, so the teacher asked me to meet with Lisa with the objective of editing and fine-tuning Lisa’s poem and story.
We went to a workspace outside the classroom, then started with her 19-line poem – which (unlike the story) I had read. She immediately apologized for its darkness, but I reassured her that my role was to improve her poem by bringing clarity to future readers – therefore not making personal judgments. Her English is good, and she’s been in the US more than a year – so her strong writing didn’t surprise me.
As we discussed her poem, Lisa responded to my questions from her heart – after all, the poem was about her. By elaborating her intent, she made my task easy. Not only did I learn more about her, she told me that she was happy when I was the one working with her because of the different people she encounters in class, I was the one she trusted the most … which surprised me because we hadn’t worked that much together, and I attend only once a week.
Her comment may have shocked me, but I was unquestionably grateful. In general, my steady temperament keeps my outward emotions in check. Whereas I’m not be overly emotionally, the sensitivity button within my core can be activated – and that would bring emotions to the surface … and yes .. Lisa triggered that button.
I told her that her comments were a gift from her to me, which (in turn), surprised and confused her … but she didn’t know about the emotional swell that was going on within me – my emotions of her journey coupled with the her kind words to me.
Being me, I returned to the task of providing comments and suggestions for her poem … then we moved on to the story: a one-page narrative about her France-to-Cincinnati journey … but unknown to the other, each of our emotions were now on heightened alert.
I kept asking questions and providing suggestions while Lisa continued being sincere, open and vulnerable. Although we were on the story, I was fusing the thoughts from the poem, the story, and her explanations. She was reaching deep within herself in these writings, and her explanations were from her inner abyss – something I never intended to do.
I asked, “Are you selfish?” … to which she quickly and emphatically responded, “Yes!” … and even saying it with a smile. We laughed, and our work continued. As we talked, the laughs and calmness eventually changed to tears in her eyes … and in time, my eyes welled.
Not only around the thought of the unexpected gift, but I was also reflecting on various aspects of my life – my trials – my tribulations – my baggage that I placed on my shoulders – and the baggage that others placed upon me. Now, I was the one explaining some of the feelings she caused me to bring out – and yes – I told Lisa about the gift she gave me – and she smiled.
We finished the edit. Being that both of us had our moments of watery eyes, we engaged in some small talk in order to regain our composure. We returned to the classroom to discover the students were gone – class was over. We informed the teacher of our accomplishments, and Lisa promised the teacher she would do her final edits and resubmit the work later in the afternoon.
While walking to my car, I reflected about the unexpected gift and my emotions. This time, without tears, but with a smile, and warmth in my core. I had a special moment with a person that I initially thought was impersonal, quiet, cold, guarded, and arrogant. For whatever reason, she let her guard down to me. We respectfully connected, and she reinforced my notion that the majority of the world is good. That’s a good day by my standards, but on this day, I got quite the unexpected special moment on a special day – my birthday.
Merci beaucoup, Lisa! … and peace and happiness to you in all your days ahead.
“Eyes Never Fake a Smile” …I left teaching almost 15 years ago, so it’s been awhile since I’ve been surprised in this manner. After class the following week, Lisa gave me this art that she created as a thank you gift, plus a personalized note and a few French cookies. Although the cookies didn’t make it home, this now serves as a reminder of a very good day.